SEATTLE - Early exit or Final Four — Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he wouldn't be surprised by either this season.
Well, how 'bout another Sweet 16 for the Cardinals, a team the coach doesn't compare with his best, but refuses to give up on, either.
Terry Rozier had 25 points and seven assists, and Pitino directed the undermanned, fourth-seeded Cards to a 66-53 victory Sunday night over Northern Iowa in the NCAA Tournament.
The fifth-seeded Panthers (31-4) were a popular pick in this one, trying to recreate their 2010 victory over a different blueblood (Kansas) and make another trip to the second weekend. But Pitino's harassing, 2-3 defense made life rough on their best player, Seth Tuttle, holding him to seven shots and 14 hard-earned points.
Now, the Cardinals (26-8) find themselves in the Sweet 16 for a program-record fourth straight year, and in the free-for-all that is now the East Region, it's silly to count them out for a third trip to the Final Four since 2012.Louisville will play eighth-seeded North Carolina State on Friday in Syracuse. A win in that one, and it could be Pitino vs. Tom Izzo, whose Michigan State team is on the other side of that bracket.
This was the grinding affair pretty much everyone expected between two teams ranked in the nation's top 20 in defense.
Except in Rozier's case. He darted his way around the floor, finding open spots for jumpers, floaters and creating enough contact to get to the line nine times. His final numbers: 8 for 13 from the floor, 8 for 9 from the line, five rebounds and the seven assists, including two sweet alley-oop passes to Montrezl Harrell that put game away.
But Louisville really won this one with defense. The Cards forced 10 turnovers and held Northern's efficient offense to 39 percent shooting. Pitino's decision to start 6-foot-10 center Mangok Mathiang set the tone against Tuttle, who found little room in the post.
Northern Iowa's last, best run started when Nate Buss made back-to-back shots to trim a 10-point deficit to six with 4:26 left. The Panthers got the ball on a breakaway and looked to have an easy bucket when Jeremy Morgan dropped a pass to Wes Washpun, who went unhindered to the basket. But Wayne Blackshear came from nowhere to disrupt the shot, then Louisville went down and Rozier threw a lob to Harrell (14 points) for his first alley-oop.
About a minute later, they connected again for a jam and three-point play that ended it.
The Cardinals, challenged on offense all season, picked a great day to have an above-average shooting night: 45.8 percent from the floor.
Blackshear, a senior, finished with 10 points to go over the 1,000-point mark for his career. He's been on three 30-win teams. The only way he can make it four is if the Cardinals take the title.